This blog will be the third time I've devoted space to the work of Rae Armantrout, a poet whose work I've followed for over 45 years, with continuous interest and curiosity. I reviewed her Money Shot [Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2011] here, in 2011; and commented on the reaction to her Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Versed [Wesleyan University Press, 2009] here, in 2010. Her new collection, Itself [Wesleyan, 2015], has just been published, and I'm moved to a reappraisal of her work, both for what it may say about its evolution of style, and what it may indicate about the affects of literary authority within the larger contexts of taste and critical regard.
What is immediately apparent to any reader familiar with her work, is that, at least until now, each new book has been neither a departure in terms of style, nor an attempt to break new formal ground. Her poems have been remarkably consistent and devoted to the manner and approach that she exhibited in her earliest collections, Extremities [The Figures, 1978], Precedence [Burning Deck, 1985], Necromance [Sun & Moon, 1991], Made to Seem [Sun & Moon, 1995]--none of which (mysteriously), by the way, are to be found in her previous titles list in this new collection. Rather, she has stretched and attenuated her style, without straying outside its parameters. Her poems have never been lyrical, or formal performances. They're tightly controlled and compressed meditations, which employ a short-hand of phrase and cliché and internal dialectic, to achieve witty leaps, and ironic turns or satiric surprises, some of which stand as caricature or condemnation, others of which are self-reflexive and worrisome.
Meditative poets, like Donne (the lyricist), or Wordsworth (of the common tongue), usually end up creating unresolved dilemmas (which are like puzzles), or settling on pat resolutions. But Armantrout is a post-Modernist, which is to say she is never "inside" the language as she uses it, but is always, at least, at one remove (or two, or three) from the address of the voice she employs. This distance permits her to treat speech acts as specimens. She is forever hearing something else inside language, which is to say, something other than the manifest sense it's originally intended to carry. There's often a kind of sardonic amusement between what people--in media, on the street, in the marketplace of common discourse--think they are saying, and what that speech actually signifies to the alert poetic sensibility (a heightened consciousness).
The larger challenge, one which Armantrout has always sought to answer, is how the deeper implications of the revelation of accidental or self-deluding language affect everyone, beyond the dialectic of us versus them, or of political correctness versus the conceit of intellectual omniscience. There are other ways of saying this, of course.
Despite the apparent consistency of Armantrout's work, which I have remarked on before, I detect a subtle alteration of viewpoint, in this new collection, which I see as a consequence of the change in her literary status, from one seen primarily as a minor, and somewhat hermetic practitioner of an obscure elite known as Language Poetry, to one viewed as a unique, independent example of a writer with her own vision, and her own separate intention(s). This transformation--an elevation of awareness that occurred when she won the Pulitzer in 2010, has led to a change, a freedom of movement in her poems, that I imagine wouldn't have been possible without the breaking open of her reputation, and the expansion of her readership.
Literary fame may affect different writers in different ways. It may have the effect of driving them underground (Jack Gilbert, W.D. Snodgrass), or of encouraging them to move directly into the spotlight of public consciousness (Robert Bly, James Dickey). It may make them arrogant, or pretentious, or conceited, or vainglorious. The increased pressure of the consciousness of a larger audience may change the way a writer thinks of herself, preventing her from enjoying the kind of self-communion that privacy and intimacy once afforded. Fame can be a curse, or a blessing, but it is rarely neither.
For an experimental poet, such as Armantrout, the difficulties, of the kind which characterize her style, usually stand as barriers to appreciation for the common reader. When official taste and approval are tendered, the sense of permission and opportunity may encourage a writer to think even less about the accessibility of her work. How any writer chooses to exploit this permission may determine the course their work may take. When James Wright had achieved the official approval of the "verse culture" by winning the Yale Prize for The Green Wall , followed by widespread approval for Saint Judas [Wesleyan, 1959], he felt emboldened to abandon altogether the academic formalities which had brought him this opportunity, and did an aesthetic about-face--a self-transformation which would come to be seen as characteristic not only of his generation, but typical of what happens when a petitioner is granted access to the inner circles of power. It changes the terms of the argument, from one of aspiration for recognition, to a self-conscious performance.
But Armantrout was never traditional, didn't wear old-fashioned stanzas and talk about the usual stale subjects. She was looking for something more elusive, something hidden in plain-view wherever she looked. The photographer Harry Callahan once said that a good photographer should be able to make an interesting composition of anything within 15 feet of where he was standing--that we didn't need to "find" subject matter, or travel to discover it; when he went to Europe he was thwarted, because, as he said, everything was so "photogenic" he couldn't "find a picture." Armantrout shares an affinity with that kind of thinking, in that there's no straining toward the exotic or the inspiring or the ideal. It's everywhere we look. It's inside us already. And it doesn't matter whether it IS exotic or inspiring or ideal, because none of that matters--at least in her work.
From the dustwrapper Photo of Armantrout's Itself *
So the poems in this new collection are, as it happens, existential, in that they pose questions about the terms of the propositions themselves, rather than setting competing points of view in opposition, and discovering satisfyingly pat ironies in the bargain.
When I was at Iowa, I once complained to my poet-professor Marvin Bell that what I lacked--what I sought--or thought I needed, as a writer, was a voice. Voice in the sense of the presence of the author's mind, as communicated through the music, the characteristic sound of one's phrasing--not just phrasing, but somehow memorable phrasing, inimitable phrasing--a style. Marvin said the predictable thing, as I regard it now in retrospect, that voice would "come" of its own, simply in the act of attempting to make stories or poems--that this would happen "despite" oneself--that one's voice would always be unique, even in imitation. In Olson's phrase, "we do not change, we only stand more revealed." Frost had said somewhere that he sought in his prosody, the sound of sentences, the characteristic way in which we speak, as a strategy of reflexive intention.
Armantrout's approach to language in her poems has been typically linguistic--that is to say, as one who examines language as a phenomenological entity, a system of communication and representation. In Armantrout's work, there was an exploration of the relationship between popular, or technical, or jargon'd speech--just at the point it enters the zone of common usage and familiarity, just as it began to fade into the tapestry of background presumption. The voice of her poems--insofar as one may speak of it--was built out of fragments of speech which she heard or read in the environment of language, and she marshaled these evidentiary fragments into a dialectic of irony, interrogation and verdict. Pragmatics--the study of how contexts affect our apprehension of meaning (and identity) in language--provided a useful tool in understanding what Armantrout's program involves: By presenting phrase or word fragments in free-floating space, untethered or un-anchored to their putative context, and playing them off one against the other, she was able to set up enjambments, "accidents" (coincidences of speech), releasing surprising energies, out of the kernels or nodes of specimen language. That the reader, or indeed the writer, was implicated in the content of such fragments, as well as the jeopardy implied by their sculptured collage, went without saying. All this was familiar in her work, which by the end of the 1970's, had hardened into a style.
At its best, poetry can serve as a kind of short-hand for feelings or cognitions which are nearly impossible to describe in straight prose, or even in heavily inflected jargon (such as is common in the sciences). Armantrout's highly intuitive leaps and edgy spliced concisions are like riddles to a code that underlies all our apprehensions in language--a kind of interlinear stream of consciousness. Poetry can be entertainment--and it often is, at its best--or exploration, or demonstration. Following her serious engagement with cancer, and the expansion of her audience following the Pulitzer--Armantrout's work was bound to become either more desperate, or more extravagant--something I noted in my review of a previous book [Money Shot, 2011].
If her work has always, in a sense, been about provisional logic of coping with the strangeness of reality, or the failed logic of naive misapprehension, these new poems are about questioning ultimate presumptions, the thing itself. Carlos Williams often employed the impersonal pronoun "it" to describe a phenomenon or a feeling which the poem was designed to define, or outline. Sometimes it represented a force, sometimes the life force, sometimes an infernal power, but it never meant more than the context in which it appeared. Each poem's "it" might be addressed as, or stand for, a different thing.
What is it that Armantrout's "it" --i.e., "Itself"--specifically stands for? Armantrout's it could be the indefinable, or elusive quality which is hidden in experience, or hidden inside perception, or hidden inside thought, or something in plain sight which we can't see, because . . . or, the key word is hidden. The sense that there is a truth, or a reality, that is crucial to our understanding of the world, which poetry might conceivably reveal, either by accident or intention.
In Armantrout's earlier work, she seemed content to let her explorations of popular jargon and casual conversational specimens of speech tangle themselves up into ironic little twisted balls of contradiction and unintended humor or canny wit. The poems in Itself seem, on the other hand, to be aimed at specific targets. If "it" is a placeholder for what she wants to name, or identify, it might stand for the self, floating in a sea of language, or it might be the kernel of matter which physicists want to isolate and describe as the irreducible measure of all substantial immanence. As the self employs language, it may become synonymous with the color of its identity. But the self is suspicious, it mistrusts the functionality of grammar, the familiar comfort of reliable signification(s). This anxiety is a primary driver in Armantrout's poetic program, its coin of exchange. The thing itself--its elusiveness--is like a particle in physics which can only be known indirectly, through the "ghosts" or "trails" it leaves. It may exist only for a nano-second, before disappearing into the void. Without air, we have no voice, and there is no echo.
How is the self to define itself except through the shared currency of consent? If I allow that your identity is confirmed through the rhythm and tone of your speech, the characteristic ordering of your language, might this be another illusion, inside of which the "real" self (the thingness of your being) is concealed?
Here's an experiment, perhaps just balancing on the edge of permission and courtesy. What follows is a series of excerpts from the book, taken partly at random, partly through delight and interest, which themselves form a sequence that seems to me as vital as the coincidental, incidental, random, unintended, chance, contingent, fortuitous and unexpected quality of the actual poems from which the extracts are drawn.
What's the take-away?
She acts out understanding
the way a mime
climbs an invisible wall.
On a traffic island, a man waves his arms
as if conducting music,
and takes bows.
Meaning is sensed relation.
Among twenty brown hills
the only moving thing
was the Coca-Cola truck.
the edge of
could have been
Around the block
dogs bark at absence.
"I feel it,"
and you came.
Can a thought truly be mine
if I am not currently thinking it?
floors and hallways
built of living
In our world,
around unheld, trim
Cinderella's evening gown
These things happen.
We are made up
of tiny rules.
The rules follow
Every one is perfect.
as if doubt
were a way
Boarding all zones at this time.
Looked at from
nothing has happened
Just put words
after the last.
Just get out
Fragments accumulate on the other side of the room. They're a motley crew, complete with provisional dunce-caps and prosthetic limbs where there should be hands, feet, ears, heads. This is comic, since no one dies, tragically or otherwise. Whenever abstraction attains a certain limit, coherence flags. It's an artificial wind like the old bearded salt in the clouds sending explorers across the ocean of time on a voyage of conquest and discovery. They don't know what they'll find. And neither do we.
*For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone would want a photo portrait like this one on their book jacket. Armantrout looks uncomfortable, and peculiarly "posed"--as if trying to appear ill at ease, or eccentrically riveted by the photographer's direction.